In China’s unregistered churches, the question of “Who owns the church?” can be a very practical one.
Of course, all the members would be quick to affirm that Christ is the Head of the church; it belongs to him. Yet, for those urban congregations that have to rent or buy property, the issue of whose name to put on the lease or the deed can be problematic. With no legal status, these congregations have to rely on the pastor or other responsible members to shoulder this responsibility. With this arrangement comes the risk that this person could use their influence to unduly sway decisions on matters affecting the congregation. If he or she were to leave the church, or if family members were to claim a right to the property, the congregation could be faced with a complicated situation.
This practical question of church property ownership points to a much deeper issue within the unregistered church.
In a post from The Steward’s Journey titled “Who Owns the House Church?” Pastor Wang Liwei addresses the profound sense of ownership that pastors have toward the churches they have founded. As a pastor himself, Wang has experienced both the satisfaction and the burden of nurturing a small congregation. Today as he mentors younger pastors he cautions them to avoid the trap of ownership and instead see themselves as stewards.
Kelsey McFaul, who interviewed Wang, writes, “For Wang, a sense of ownership and control are the largest challenges in his own leadership journey and in the lives of the pastors he mentors now. In both, he finds the surrender and freedom of stewardship to be transformative.”
Here are some of the insights Wang has gained on the journey from steward to owner:
- For a founding pastor, a high sense of responsibility comes with a strong sense of ownership, and often the need to control.
- The church grows because of the close bonds between the members and the pastor, who, as a pioneer, is free from restrictions and does whatever it takes to shepherd the flock (but also lacks accountability).
- Young pastors feel they are representing God and ought, as a boss, to make all the decisions, but when they assume the role of a boss they fail.
- Bosses end up doing everything themselves, while everyone else looks on. A steward knows the freedom of delegating tasks to others, who in turn experience the freedom of being able to serve without waiting on the pastor for everything.
Wang’s story is one of several in a series on steward leaders in China documented by The Steward’s Journey. These stories provide a helpful window into some of the social and cultural barriers Chinese believers face as they try to live as stewards and how they can find freedom by overcoming these.
Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of... View Full Bio
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